“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
– Mitch Albom
August 28, 2021 marks the five-year anniversary of my brother’s unexpected and not so unexpected death. I say “not so unexpected” since Richard had been neglecting his health for a long time in some very significant ways. He was the type who either ignored a problem or minimized its significance. Still, the suddenness of his passing was a shock to everyone who knew him. One moment he was alive and seconds later he was gone. The cause of death was ruled a blood clot in his brain and the attending emergency room doctor said that Richard probably didn’t even know it was happening.
I was more than a thousand miles away when this occurred, but it came down to me to make the decision to take him off life support. Richard never married, had no children, and my 89-year-old mother was considered the closest relative. Mom found the weight of deciding the fate of her oldest son too much to bear and turned to me for guidance. So, over the phone I had to weigh all the facts and once I was sure that the Richard we loved was gone, I told Mom that we had to let him go. The decision itself doesn’t haunt me – it was the right thing to do — but that doesn’t lessen the pain.
Richard was nine years older than me, but the age difference wasn’t as imposing as it might seem. I grew up with a very dysfunctional father and Richard took on the role of parenting me in ways that Dad wasn’t capable of. Although we weren’t really equals, Richard didn’t look down on me or treat me as his bothersome little brother – even though I am sure that I could be quite annoying at times. He took me camping, fishing, hiking, backpacking, and wasn’t afraid to let me tag along with him and his friends. Richard took me to my first concert way back in October of 1971 — The Beach Boys with Taj Mahal. Many of my best times growing up were with Richard and although I didn’t realize it back then, our relationship was very unique. I knew very little about the older siblings of my friends, but all my friends knew Richard.
Over the years, our closeness diminished, and we would go for long periods of time without speaking. When we did get together, though, I often felt that sense of belonging come rushing back. Some of my favorite trips to Arizona involved just the two of us borrowing Dad’s pickup truck to head out into the desert for rock hounding (a shared passion). We would spend days driving unmapped dirt roads in search of everything from onyx to staurolite to Apache tears. We camped under the stars and fell asleep to orchestras of coyotes. We were brothers, adventurers, and friends.
Richard was a man of great brilliance but would not be considered successful by American standards. He left college in the third year of his mechanical engineering program and spent his adult life working as a custodian in the Tempe public school district. He never made a lot of money, but Richard was loved by every student, parent, teacher, and school administrator that crossed his path. In fact, he was awarded the equivalent of Educator of the Year by the last school he worked for. As far as I know, that honor had never before been bestowed on a man who cleaned up the restrooms and mopped the floors.
After taking an early retirement, Richard immediately converted his “free time” into full-time volunteer work. He ran an after-school reading program, taught English as a second language, worked as a crossing guard, built and painted sets for school plays, and maintained the vegetable garden he created for the kids. He could grow, build, fix, and paint anything. He joked that it’s hard work not getting paid.
Upon his passing, one of the teachers he worked with borrowed photos from Mom and fellow teachers to make this video of Richard’s life. I watch it often and still get choked up over the photographs.
I have many regrets in my life and one of the biggest is that as the years went by, I became too busy for Richard. Some of that had to do with distance, but it was more than simply the miles between us. Richard was different and I let that difference get in the way of our relationship. Dad was hard on all us kids and as the oldest, Richard suffered the most. Unlike me who tried to pretend that the pain wasn’t there, Richard openly wore the scars. I looked upon that as weakness and allowed it to color our once strong connection. It took me far too long to see how wrongheaded that kind of thinking is.
I never had a chance to say goodbye to Richard and have been told that I should write a letter to him telling him how much he meant to me and how much I miss him. For the past five years I have been avoiding doing that, but it’s time to overcome my hesitance.
Richard, you were and still are important to me. I miss you as a brother, friend, and surrogate father. If I close my eyes I can still hear your voice. I can’t always say that I agree with what you are saying, but that was true when you were alive. Your stubbornness was legendary.
I am sorry for all the times I felt embarrassed by you and for trying to put myself above you. I see now how our humanness is what makes us special. You were always yourself and it took me until now to fully appreciate that.
I am no longer angry at you for dying. It was not my place to decide the time of your death. Our lives choose their own paths and all I can do is accept, love, have faith, and find the strength to carry on.
If I could turn back time I would call more, write more, and when we were together, be more present. I am sad that I knew so little of your life in the school district. The incredible stories I heard at your memorial service were revelations about the brother I thought I knew. I felt like a stranger.
Thank you for believing in me, nurturing me, and in your own way, protecting me. Life is hard and you made a difference in my childhood. I learned more from you than I will ever realize and wish I had the opportunity to tell you that in person.
Despite your social awkwardness, you were one of the kindest, most giving people I have ever met. I wish you gave as much to yourself as you did to others, but you did what you were able to do with the tools you had.
I love you, Richard. Your life made a huge difference to mine.
After Richard died, I flew down to Arizona to be with Mom, my siblings, and Richard’s closest friends. We were all hurting, but Mom was suffering the most. Richard was her firstborn and they had a unique and very close relationship. She called him “my angel.” To help ease the pain, she and I sat in her backyard and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She tells me that she still looks up at the sky, thinks of Richard, and sings it softly to herself.
I would like to close with some words from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Rings.” Richard and I were/are huge fans of the trilogy and this passage seems appropriate to my thoughts.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Thank you for the time you gave to this world, Richard. You are sorely missed by many.